Her pioneering career began when she helped a diamond man with his cigar
Pioneering female jewelry executive Hilda “Peggy” Kirby, one of the 12 original founders of the Women’s Jewelry Association, died on Nov. 6, following a brief illness. She was 102.
Kirby was the first recipient of WJA’s Hall of Fame award in 1985. She kept up her involvement with WJA and its board until the end, attending her last meeting this fall.
The daughter and granddaughter of jewelers, Kirby first met diamond wholesaler A.S. Hirshberg at age 8.
“He was smoking a cigar, and the ash kept getting longer and longer, until I finally went and got him an ashtray,” she told Hedda Schupak in a 2007 interview with JCK. “He said, ‘You’re the only person in the entire jewelry industry with enough sense to give me an ashtray,’ and told my father, ‘Ed, someday I’m going to hire her!’ ”
When she graduated high school, however, Kirby wanted to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But her father discouraged her—she would be only the 11th woman to attend the school, and it had no ladies’ room. She eventually received her master’s degree in international law and diplomacy, and worked for a Harvard professor and in the garment industry.
In 1940, Hirshberg followed through on his vow by hiring her to work at Finlay Straus, a New York jeweler with 14 stores. She stayed with the company as it grew into Finlay Fine Jewelry, a major operator of leased departments.
“Every piece of paper that came from the departments came to my desk first,” she recalled. “From the paperwork, I was able to work out the merchandising statistics and eventually the advertising statistics, until I was nicknamed ‘the redheaded computer.’ ”
She later became one of the jewelry industry’s first female vice presidents.
“I listen to the little girls in the business today, and I think I had a much easier life than they do,” she told Schupak. “I couldn’t be interviewed by the companies I wanted to, and, back then, even if you had a law degree, if you didn’t take shorthand and typing, you couldn’t get in the door. But today, stresses for women are so much stronger, because they’re in different positions than we were 50 years ago.”
Kirby retired in June 1978 and wrote for the trade publications Pacific Jeweler and Executive Jeweler, then helped found the Women’s Jewelers Association five years later.
In a statement, WJA president Brandee Dallow said, “Peggy Kirby was one of WJA’s most important, most influential leaders—strong, gracious, passionate and pioneering. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have merely crossed paths with such a dynamic woman as Peggy, let alone sat across from her during board meetings this past year.”
“Peggy was an inspiration to us all,” added former WJA president Yancy Weinrich. “She brought her A game to every WJA board meeting and had a terrific memory, which allowed the board to fully understand the rich history of WJA and its founders.”
Talking to Schupak, she acknowledged the business has changed a lot since Kirby entered it.
“From the sidelines, I’ve watched diamonds around the world, offshore manufacturing, the rise of China and India, battery watches, and, in horror, discounts of 70 percent,” she said. “But I still love this crazy business of jewelry.”